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Dowd-Hearted 

Sitting in his Highland Park home, Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd has a confession.

"There's a bit of panic here," he says.

No wonder. In the previous few hours, he'd confirmed plans to challenge Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the May primary, just over 12 weeks from now.

"It's daunting -- the organization is still rough," Dowd says. "But it's also exciting and important that we do this -- and that we win. Obviously, there's a lot of sentiment that we need a challenger, and new leadership. But I'm sitting here thinking, 'What are you supposed to be like when you're running for mayor?'"

Dowd joins another challenger, Carmen Robinson, but other established politicians have backed away from taking on Ravenstahl. Polling data floating around in political circles suggests Ravenstahl remains fairly popular, and he's sitting on nearly $800,000 in campaign contributions. That's roughly 400 times what Dowd currently has, and nearly three times what Dowd hopes to raise. City Council President Doug Shields has already abandoned a challenge of his own.

Shields' departure helps clear the field, of course, but Dowd faces other obstacles. He's arguably getting into this race too late and too soon. The primary is just three months away, which isn't much time to start a campaign from scratch. Yet Dowd isn't even midway through his first term on council. He hasn't compiled much name recognition or legislative accomplishment, though he has accumulated a bit of baggage. As a school-board member, he voted to oust Pittsburgh's first black superintendent, earning resentment in some communities. He's also been at odds with Shields and fellow councilor Bill Peduto, two reform-minded city councilors you'd expect to be his allies.

Dowd is undaunted. "Polls are good for looking backwards, but not for telling you what you should do," he says. "People are already saying, 'We'd like to volunteer,' and there's a Facebook page growing pretty rapidly. I don't know if that means anything, but we're going to find out."

And his best ally may be Ravenstahl himself.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Ravenstahl actually isn't an idiot. He's put together a couple of responsible budgets, and even if they contain some ticking time-bombs, at this point, whose doesn't? He's begun work to make the city more bike-friendly and environmentally responsible.

But while having the youngest big-city mayor in the nation was fun at first, after awhile you do want some gravitas. And Ravenstahl may have jumped the shark at the Steelers Super Bowl victory parade -- when he rode alongside QB Ben Roethlisberger himself. Back in 2007, when Ravenstahl faced only token opposition, the public's attitude toward him was "Give The Kid a Chance." Now, though, it may be closer to "It's Time the Kid Grew Up Already."

And while Ravenstahl's initiatives often capture the imagination, his administration isn't always so good at thinking them through. There's a government-by-photo-op feel to gambits like, say, the "war on snow" he declared last winter.

Another example: the revelation that local nonprofits paid nothing to city tax coffers last year.

Nonprofits -- which include huge employers like UPMC as well as small arts groups -- are generally tax-exempt. But under an old agreement, they contributed roughly $4 million a year to city operations. But that agreement expired, and no new agreement has been finalized. As a result, the city didn't get a dime in 2008.

Ravenstahl was asked about nonprofits during a CP-sponsored mayoral debate in 2007. He touted his approach as "cooperative ... not confrontational" in seeking money from nonprofits. "You can't throw stones." Well, in retrospect, maybe he should have thrown more stones, and perhaps driven fewer golf balls on UPMC's dime -- as Ravenstahl famously did at a 2007 charity golf tournament.

(Online update: Between the time this article went to press and when it hit the streets, the city announced that when a new agreement with non-profits is struck, money will be "paid back" to cover the 2008 year.) 

How hard will Dowd hit Ravenstahl on such issues? "People have to be held accountable, but this isn't about whether people like Luke or Patrick," he says. "This is about the future, and the people who are laying out visions. We're going to talk about population loss. We have to talk about attracting and holding people here -- the culture and climate, how we run city government. That's where our message is going to head."

If you were laying odds on Dowd's challenge, the smart money would where all the other money has already gone -- to the incumbent. Even so, Dowd might not be the only politician feeling a slight twinge of panic right now.

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